It was called Operation Genghis Khan after the rabid Mongol warlord of the 13th Century.
It began around 5.45 in the evening of December 3, 1971, when Pakistani warplanes strafed and bombed several Indian Air Force bases in the west, including Agra, barely 200 km from New Delhi.
In a sign that the strike wasn’t quite unexpected, the sprawling Taj Mahal was quickly covered with green camouflage because the white marble dome was like a beacon for hostile aircraft.
Faced with an insurrection –backed by India - in its eastern wing due to the genocidal crackdown on the Bengali population, Islamabad under President Yahya Khan really did not have much choice. Officially, the 1971 India Pakistan war had begun. Less than a fortnight later, it was over.
It was not just one of the shortest wars in history, it was the first - and perhaps only - war that India won decisively. It was also the only one not fought over Kashmir.
The first war in 1947 ended with Pakistan occupying large tracts of Kashmir before a ceasefire was declared and a line of control marked out.
In 1965, barely three years after Chinese forces routed India in the northeast, Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar, aimed at infiltrating Pakistani forces into Kashmir to start an insurgency.
The war that followed ended in a stalemate negotiated by Moscow and Washington, and the signing of the Tashkent Declaration. Domestically, both sides claim to have won.
Despite the valiant attempts by our young men in uniform, US president Bill Clinton had to read out the Riot Act to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in July 1999, before Pakistani forces vacated Indian territory in Kargil.
But in 1971, India under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi not only trained and armed the Mukti Bahini or Bengali insurgents, she was quite prepared for war.
The manner in which she stared down the mighty United States, which sent its Seventh Fleet towards the Bay of Bengal, later earned her the sobriquet of being ‘the only Indian Prime Minister with balls.’
It was also the only modern war in which the defeated forces were humiliated with a public surrender, negotiated by an intrepid warrior and eastern command chief, General JFR Jacob, who ignored orders from Army headquarters to hold and consolidate and instead went straight for Dhaka.
As the head of the Pakistani Army in the East, Lt. General A. A. K. Niazi, was to claim later, Jacob ‘blackmailed’ him into accepting a public surrender at the Dhaka racecourse.
It was the largest surrender since World War II, with some 93,000 Pakistani troops being held as prisoners of war. But the immense leverage this gave New Delhi over Pakistan was negated in 1972, when Pakistan’s wily new Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, convinced Indira Gandhi at Shimla to release the Pakistani POWs without ceding any concessions over Kashmir.
Most of the Indian heroes of that war --including then Army chief and later Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and General Jagit Singh Aurora, who took the surrender from Niazi as GOC, Eastern Command – have passed away.
General JFR Jacob, now 90, lives a quiet life in his small apartment in Som Vihar, New Delhi.
General Ian Cardozo, who stepped on a landmine during the closing days of the war, and then chopped off his badly damaged foot with his own kukri, went on to command an infantry battalion and a brigade. He now heads a military NGO for the war disabled, and was still swimming six laps every day when I last saw him a few years ago.
General VK Singh, who recently retired as Army chief, was a Second Lieutenant during that war.
In Pakistan, General Niazi, who was famous for statements like ‘Dacca will fall only over my dead body,’ was stripped of his rank after the surrender, and very few mourners attended his funeral in Lahore in February 2004.
General Tikka Khan, also known as the ‘Butcher of Bangladesh’ for the abominable atrocities he inflicted on Bengalis while he was East Pakistan’s martial law administrator, received a state funeral in Rawalpindi attended by the Pakistani military top brass in March 2002.
General Yahya Khan was stripped of his ranks and jailed by his successor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He was released after the execution of Bhutto by General Zia-ul Haq in April 1979, and was given a full military burial upon his death in August 1980.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her own bodyguards in October 1984.
Though diluted by subsequent political compromises, India’s clear and unambiguous military victory in 1971 gave the nation a much needed shot in the arm, particularly after the 1962 rout by China.
Divided and demoralized, Pakistan vowed revenge. Emboldened by the tit for tat nuclear tests of 1998 which leveled the military playing field, it stepped up terrorist and suicide attacks on Indian interests. Among others, the Kargil intrusion of 1999, the attacks on the Srinagar Assembly in October 2001, and on the Indian Parliament in December that same year, and of course the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, probably have a direct link to people seeking to avenge the humiliation of 1971. There will be more to come.
Sadly, our leadership since 1971 appears emasculated, to the extent that we have actually officially delinked terrorism from talks.
The way we mobilized our Army for war after the attack on our parliament, but then stepped down without firing a shot, strengthened the notion - not just in Pakistan, but across the world - that when push came to shove, India would always blink first.
We forget, in our attempts to sue for peace, that many young Pakistani soldiers who fought in that war (including former general/president Pervez Musharraf, now in exile) are now senior officers in the Pakistani army.
Do we really expect them to forgive and forget?
More importantly, is this what our men and women in uniform died - and continue to die - for?
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Ramananda Sengupta is a senior editor and strategic analyst